So for Amy’s Meaningful Gift Exchange series (Amy, in case I haven’t said it recently, you are a delight in every way, and when I have thought about quitting blogging in the past, you are one of the bloggers I always think how much I would miss), we are writing posts about meaningful gifts. And I thought I’d say a few words about being a good gift-giver.

I am a really good gift-giver. I give thoughtful, meaningful, excellent gifts. I know you aren’t supposed to brag about yourself, and usually I don’t and I try to recognize my own limitations &c., &c., but in this one case I think it is fair to say that I am legitimately a really good gift-giver. When I tell this to people, they say, “Great! So you can help me think of what to get for my sister/grandfather/aunt who’s really hard to buy for!” Alas, I cannot. One of the reasons I feel comfortable saying that I’m a really good gift-giver is that my gift-giving prowess is not based in endless creativity in thinking of presents, but just thinking about presents and present recipients a lot. The good news is that this makes it a totally acquirable skill! Here are the main ways I get people good gifts.

1. Never let presents be far from your mind. This is the main thing. Everything else can be collapsed into this one idea. I’m concerned that one day my family will realize I’m not exceptionally good at presents, just very, very attuned to them; and then my reputation as a genius gift-giver will go bust. It helps that I love spending money but don’t always feel justified in spending money on myself. Often when I see something I love in a store, I first think, I want that, and next think, Who would like to have that as a present? It’s more fun to buy presents you’re excited about too.

2. Keep a running list. Seriously. I can’t emphasize this one enough. Keep a document (mine’s in DropBox) or a draft email or whatever you want, where you write down every present idea you ever have for anyone at any time in the year. This includes generic present ideas with no recipient in mind. Good presents are good presents. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.* You probably won’t use most of your ideas — sometimes when you give yourself time to calm down about an initially exciting idea, you realize it wouldn’t, after all, be quite the thing. But it helps to have some stuff noted down. When late November rolls around and you have to get down to brass tacks and figure out presents, it is handy to have some ideas about, at the very least, the different possible genres of gifts.

3. Listen to what the people on your gift list are saying about their lives. This is the reason I can’t be of immediate help with your hard-to-buy-for sister/grandfather/aunt. You have to have been paying attention to them all along. People talk about stuff they want. They just do. Keep a weather eye open and you will garner thousands of gift ideas. They wish they had more fun scarves. They’d like to read more about modern urban planning. People complain about things they don’t have. Their walls are too bare. Their television reception is crappy. They can’t find a good pair of gloves. This is all fodder for the List, people. If you’ve been paying attention to this, then when your coworker starts raving about the best pair of gloves in existence, BAM! Gift idea. And everybody loves to receive a gift that says I gave weight to the things you said lightly. (I know because it has happened to me.)

4. Find a balance between delightfulness and usefulness. Sometimes a gift is stupendously exciting and beautiful right when the person first unwraps it, but it doesn’t end up being useful to them. It can be okay to get a thrilling unuseful thing, because sometimes what a person needs in their life is something beautiful. Just be aware of the balance. Both Legal Sister and Social Sister would be charmed by the sonic screwdriver pen I got for Legal Sister last year, but only Legal Sister would actually use it. You could find the most beautiful dangly earrings in the entire world, but if the person you’re buying a gift for doesn’t like dangly earrings this will be of no use. Keep it in mind.

5. Experience presents can be amazing. Science tells us that people are more happy when they spend money on experiences rather than things. Last year my sisters and I took our awesome uncle out for laser tag. We got to hang out with him (he is really cool and fun to hang out with), and we all got to do a fun activity we don’t usually get to do. Win win! I am especially partial to giving gifts of letting someone treat herself. Everyone has little things they do to give themselves a treat. Pay attention when they say what these are, and figure out if you can give them that treat as a gift.

6. Remember that you aren’t buying presents for yourself. I took a Myers-Briggs personality test online one time, and one part of the results was like, “You tend to buy presents you think people should want, rather than presents they really do want.” Touche, online Myers-Briggs test. I do have that tendency. That tendency is the reason behavioral economists write Scroogey articles every Christmas about what a waste of money it is because the person you’re buying gifts for won’t like their gifts and you should just let them pick out their own gifts because they’ll be happier that way.


The reason presents are fun and exciting and happy is that the giver has spent time thinking about the givee. What makes presents good is not, primarily, the things. It is the attempt to create a small pocket of happiness for someone you love in a way that shows you have thought hard about how to make them happy. I live far away from my family, and there’s not much I can do on a daily basis to create happiness for them. This is by far the worst thing about living in New York, a city I am coming to really love. My family has had a shitty and stressful year, and I hate it that I can’t do anything to create a small pocket of respite. I can’t sing and play guitars with Daddy. I can’t bring salsa and Archer over to Social Sister. I can’t gossip with my aunt. I can’t take Mumsy out for lunch. I can’t drive anyone to doctor appointments or take the dog on a walk or pick up prescriptions.

(Oh dear I’m getting tearful.)

The point is that when Christmas and birthdays come around, it’s a chance to say, You are someone I love for all the particular things that make you the person you are, and I want to put happiness into your life. The presents I feel happiest about are the ones that target really specific aspects of the person I’m getting it for. Last year, my favorite present was the one I got my wonderful Daddy. He is into cognitive behavioral therapy, which I have used to great effect in lessening my anxiety, and he is into goofy comedy, and he is especially into family togetherness times. So for Christmas I cooked dinner (cooking causes me massive anxiety, and I have worked really hard over the years to be less anxious about it), and the whole family ate dinner together, and afterward we watched an episode of a slapsticky comedy show all together. BAM. HAPPINESS.

So there you go. That is how I do presents. I became good at them because being good at them makes me feel happy. PRESENTS.

*When I fantasize about being rich, one of the things I imagine is that I will be able to just buy some of these things when I see them, and keep a Closet o’ Presents. Wouldn’t that be great? If someone I knew was in need of a present to give, I could be like, “Oh, come look at my Closet o’ Presents, and see if there’s anything that person would like.” It would be my own personally curated gift shop.

24 thoughts on “Presents

  1. This is a delightfully altruistic post. My husband and I have trouble with the balance between delightfulness and usefulness, and I am amused that one instance of this is displayed with the very item you mention–and I might add one more rule of good gift-giving, which is never dash another gift-giver’s hope that this is a great gift even if you have doubts about its usefulness. That’s just grinchy.

    • It’s a hard balance to strike! I know I sometimes come down on the wrong side of this balance, because I am so focused on the moment of the present being opened. And the glee! Ahhhhhhhh.

      Also, I agree with your rule but add the caveat that that only applies if the person has already gotten the gift. If it is just under consideration, it’s more than fair game to nix it. Indeed it is almost a moral obligation. Right?

      • In general, I would agree. With a spouse, though, or at least with my spouse, I think it can be grinchy to spoil his delight in the present. It’s like when the kids were babies and maybe he didn’t do something just right (the way I, the mother, would do it) but I wasn’t going to mention it unless I wanted to make him feel unappreciated and then he would never help out with that particular thing again.

  2. Yes, presents people SHOULD like! Yes, foisting books on them! yes! yes! yes! (no, not advocating Ulysses, in spite of that secret Molly Bloom allusion, merely admitting that I occasionally indulge in the “should” presents!)

    • I foist the hell out of books on people! That’s my favorite thing to do! I also secretly sometimes read people’s book presents before giving them to them. That’s a thing I do. Yeah.

  3. Love this post. I try my best at the first three and am sometimes successful (it’s not helpful when people don’t talk much about what they like/want), but the others are more difficult. In fact the last on your list, it sounds selfish but when you think about it it happens more than you think, one does often end up thinking from their own point of view. If you’ve mastered all those points then I’m not surprised you’re good at it, and I don’t think it’s a bad sort of bragging at all 🙂

    • They are difficult! I have accepted the fact that even the most talented gift-giver cannot get superb gifts every single time. I do truly try hard to think from the other person’s point of view. Mostly. Sort of.

  4. Well put, my dear. This is one of those areas wherein you are the DEAD SPIT of your aunt. I only wish I had y’all’s mad skillz.

    Also, on the subject of the running list: while I agree wholeheartedly, I keep losing my lists. Also: your father was cleaning out his wallet yesterday and was puzzling over a little scrap of paper; he finally laughed and threw it down in front of me. “Look at this,” he said, “I have no idea whatsoever what I was talking about. ‘N list’? What could that be?” The scrap of paper said: “The Replacement. N list.” So I hope some other family member figures it out. 😛

  5. this is a truly perfect post. (and aw your words at the beginning! <333)

    You are the best and the people who know you are lucky to have you!

  6. Oh, what a lovely post – and what a deficient gift giver it makes me feel! Well, there are some people I love buying for, and some I really struggle. Although recently I bought a friend a book that I’d put a lot of thought into, and thought it was perfect (and also really wanted it myself, but sacrificially gave it to them instead – and it was the only secondhand copy available affordably, so it really was sacrificial) – and then I found out a while later that they’d given it away without reading it. Which broke my heart a little.

  7. That was delightful. I think you are right to be pleased about your gift-giving ability. I only wished I lived closer to you, and was on your gift-list!

    The other thrilling gift-giving experience is to give a perfect gift to a person you don’t normally exchange gifts with, just because it was found. I gave a friend that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies book when we normally don’t exchange with. I made her promise that we wouldn’t start giving presents to each other, just that I saw this, and I knew she didn’t know about it, and that she would love it. She’s that good kind of friend who believed me and didn’t feel obligated to give me a gift back. But two years later she had a gift for me, only because it was exactly what she knew I wanted that no one else would give me.

    • I wish that too because I just finished buying all my Christmas gifts today, and now I feel sad that there are no more presents to buy. I love buying presents SO MUCH.

      Definitely agree about finding the perfect gift for a person you don’t typically do gifts with. My friend tim and I are that way — if we see the opportunity to send each other something good, we’ll do it, but it’s sporadic and not really related to events like Christmas and birthdays.

  8. This is such a good post!! I am not great at giving presents, I think because I don’t keep a list and so when it comes to present time I’m at a loss even if I know very well what things wold be delightful and useful to the people I love. I am going to start a list now. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it 🙂

    • Yay, I helped! You will be astonished how well it works. Plus, if you have a running list, you’ll be more likely to hang on to present ideas when they flit through your mind on the subway or whatever. Because you’ll have somewhere to write them down!

  9. I am also known as something of a good gift giver and it’s for exactly this reason. I think about it all year round. Sadly, I can usually only manage thinking about two or three family members a year so they get spectacular gifts while everyone else gets something good but not great.

    • I think about all the family members as often as I can, but there is never a year where I get something superb for everybody on my list. This year the standouts are for Captain Hammer and Social Sister. And Daddy.

  10. I love every word of this post! I’m also pretty durned good at presents (<–modesty), and I have tons of fun every year figuring out EXACTLY what will work best for each person. It's joyous and exciting and it totally makes my year when somebody loves something I got for them or did for/with them.

    Some of my present-giving pleasure has died in recent years, though, because many people in my family don't feel the same about selecting presents. 😦 They're get-it-from-the-drug-store-on-the-way-over people. It's totally sad-making and kind of sucks the fun out of finding great things for them.

    I try to remember that presents are more fun to give than to recieve, though, and that helps. I've also had wonderful success with getting the perfect thing for my parents and some of my other cousins, too, which makes me happy. And last year my grandmother was so thrilled with the cocker spaniel figurines I gave her (selected because she used to have a beloved cocker spaniel named Penny) that it pretty well made the holiday season.

    Also! My Mumsie has a Closet o' Presents! (or a Two Huge Bins o' Presents, at any rate.) She wins a lot of contests, so she stores things up for Christmas. She also buys things throughout the year, too, when she sees something really great that's also on sale. This year, she and I made present packs for everyone by sorting through her THBOP and my own stash of stuff. Fun!

    • Yeah, this obviously is not the post for modesty. Obvs. I’m sorry that you don’t have friends-and-relations who have comparable enthusiasms for gifts. That does make it a little less fun. My family is very, very, very into presents, and I inherited it from them.

      My grandmother had a Drawer o’ Presents when I was a little girl, and when we would come visit she would let us look at it and she would give us things. It was amazing.

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  12. So lovely! I love this post. It is fun to find the exact right thing for another person and you are so right that it can’t best happen in the two weeks before the must-give event. I did just buy my mom and my MIL the same thing and yet it will work for different reasons. It’s only a lil thing (an ornament) but I felt like I had struck gold when I saw it and realized it will work for both these wonderful women. YAY. As for buying for me? I would think it would be super easy. I am still waiting for someone to buy me pie weights. They all must assume I have them already. I haven’t bought them for myself because I hopelessly hold onto the thought that these would be the perfect thing for someone to give to me. Alas, I know; this is so against the karma of being a good gift giver…

  13. This is such an awesome post. I am usually TERRIBLE at buying presents. Just because I tend to be forgetful and scramble around the week before, and never find anything satisfactory. Your suggestion about always thinking about present ideas while shopping is really a good one, it means I can actually get a little more organized in buying gifts.

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